Laptop Music, A Brief History

I was invited by to write an overview of “laptop music.” My intial instinct was that this would be less an introduction than a requiem. Isn’t the phrase “laptop music” sorta “over”? Well, as it turns out, no. Quite the contrary, more people are making more music with more software than ever on laptops. The piece, “Serial Port: A Brief History of Laptop Music,” was published yesterday on It’s divided into five tidy sections:

(1) Inside the Box: The computer comes out to play; (2) Fast Backward: A brief prehistory of laptop music; (3) Tool or Toolbox: The laptop’s ever-changing role; (4) Plastic Devices: Critical laptop innovators and recommended CDs; and (5) The Incredible Shrinking Computer: Music in the palm of your hand.

One person has asked me, subsequent to its publication: “I do a lot of my music work on my iMac. My turntable is plugged into it even. Does this still count as ‘laptop music’? I mean, it’s Reason and Live and hopefully soon Reaktor.” (Those last three capitalized words are the names of different music-making software packages.)

That distinction was very much on my mind as I wrote the article. To me it comes down to continuity of technological experience. The laptop has allowed people who both make music at home and perform in front of audiences to use the same equipment, and thus it has allowed them to develop a heightened sense of intimacy with their equipment. That’s what uniquely makes the laptop, among various computer-music tools, akin to an instrument.

So, no, an iMac doesn’t count as a laptop just because one makes music on it. But if that single computer becomes one’s primary apparatus, both as a studio unto itself and as a performance tool that one plays in various environments, then it certainly might as well be a laptop.

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